Is Legal Weed Gentrifying Old School Stoner Culture?
When I was about 15 or 16 some friends took me to a place called the Rock Shop. It was a head shop located a few towns away, and it was a real novelty back then because weed was still a pretty taboo subject. I didn’t realize it at the time, but, besides hip hop and reggae which I grew up on, that was one of my first introductions to what defined stoner culture for me at the time.
The store masked itself as a clothing store, but it was really a haven for potheads and bohemians. The walls were covered in stickers and posters of all the quintessential stoner music from the 60s to today. The racks were full of music tees, everything from Bob Marley to Led Zepplin. There was always incense burning, music blasting from a record player in the corner, and one of the long-haired, hippy owners eager to help out. And of course, the unforgettable glass case in the back with all the paraphernalia.
Although I only went there a few times when I was young, I remember it embodied the two things I’ve always loved most about stoner culture – first, the community. You know that moment when you meet someone new and find out they love reefer just as much as you? It’s such a beautiful moment, and just about every weed lover I’ve met in life tends to have an openness to them that you just can’t find anywhere else. It’s like an unspoken rule to be friendly and share your herb when possible. And if you ever meet an asshole stoner, you know to run like hell.
Second, is the shamelessness that stoner culture possesses. Terms like ‘pot head’ still carried such a negative connotation back then since weed had been shrouded in such obscurity for so long, and being a scrawny black kid in a mostly white town only exacerbates these things. Places like the Rock Shop seemed to embrace the social obscurity instead of running from it, owning it as much as they would denounce it. Stoners and the culture’s ability to be self-deprecating has always been an admirable trait to me.
But now I’m 31 and the stoner culture landscape has drastically changed. With legalization on the rise, many more people in legal states are finally coming around to indulging in the herb (including my own mother; more on that later). Shops are not really referred to as head shops anymore, in exchange for names like ‘The Garden’ and ‘Wellness Center’ or some shit like that. I’m not even sure ‘head shop’ is even in the stoner vernacular anymore. And as the ‘cannabis industry’ goes hyperdrive into the capitalist ether, bringing in obnoxious amounts of money to legal states like Colorado, it also brings a new player into stoner culture who used to be unwelcome, and has a very different vision for the culture with a new brand in mind – and that player is the American businessman.
Stoner Culture vs. Medical Marijuana
You know you are at home when you walk into a shop and you’re bombarded with anything and everything that makes up stoner culture – the movies, the music, the artists, the philosophies that have come from great minds. Weed shops used to feel like these tributes to their roots, a time capsule that acted as an ode to all those that came before. And because so much of weed’s history is rooted in rejection from the social norm, it’s no wonder its painful story has always resonated with us social misfits and outcasts.
Sure, people from all walks of life light up and always have, but the lifestyle and culture, and those brave enough to embrace it, have always attracted an eclectic assortment of freaks and geeks. But as the head shops of old become a dying bread, it’s being replaced with medical marijuana and a new ‘cannabis industry’ ready to rebrand the culture for a new world.
For marijuana legalization to truly be taken seriously in this country, the choice was made that it had to derive from the idea that marijuana is medicine as opposed to a drug. As states began first to implement marijuana into their medical system and began opening dispensaries, I believe this is where the first transition away from old-school stoner culture began.
Anyone that’s been to a strictly medical marijuana dispensary knows that it looks way more like a doctor’s office than a head shop, and is also conducted as such. You won’t hear Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ blasting from the speakers or see a Snoop Dogg poster on a wall. And a lot of the ‘clientele’ is typically about as un-stoner as you could think up.
This all begs the question – did the ‘medical’ argument derive from someone or some group that saw efficacy in the idea or was it the government taking control of the inevitable future of pot in this country? Was it all based upon science or profit? States with only medical laws have to work within the framework of the for-profit medical industry in this country. Besides the “patients” these laws claim to serve, who really benefits from such a position?
These points are pretty much mute now, because I, like I believe most potheads did, simply went along with it because it was far better than the alternative, and any incremental step felt like a step in the right direction. As most people imagined would happen, medical marijuana began to gain traction and demonstrate a social need, and the conversation to legalize it recreationally became a lot more relevant.
Stoner Culture vs. the Cannabis Industry
Like vultures waiting for something dying to feast upon, the American businessman was sitting idly by, waiting for the opportune moment. The more relevant the conversation about legalizing recreational use becomes, the bigger the dollar signs in their eyes. Colorado has easily been the bastion for all the positives that come with legalizing it, garnering so much money in the first year of legalizing it, that the state gave the money back to the citizens.
But the biggest caveat to the legalization movement that’s been sweeping the country is the limitations to the industry. For one, most states do not allow citizens to grow their own herb, further confining those that can benefit from legalization to only financial interests. Second, the cannabis industry is not easy to get into, even for recreational sale. It’s a lot more complicated than, say, opening up a restaurant, and the initial capital needed is also ridiculous, further confining those that can really profit to those that can afford to buy-in.
Legalization has all but ignored the minority communities in which weed being legal has ravaged for many years. Dispensaries are mainly being set up in upper-class neighborhoods, like Whole Foods or a Chic-Fil-A, instead of in lower-income areas where the profits could truly benefit the community. It’s all (unsurprisingly) a bit racist and inclusive.
If the history of American capitalism teaches us anything, it’s that the moment something becomes a demanded consumer product repackaged to appeal to the masses, whatever culture attached to it either dies or evolves into something unfamiliar. Punk rock, skateboarding, and hip hop have suffered such a fate. The businessman’s relentless desperation to profit begins to water down the culture making it fake and disingenuous. It brings around people that invest time, money, and influence into it for all the wrong reasons, with no interest in being a part of or helping grow the culture and community.
The last pot shop I visited looked more like a yoga studio than a head shop. There was nothing on the walls, but there was plenty of hipster decor to make the room feel more like an Ikea than a place to get reefer, and the guy behind the counter looked as though he should be selling shirts at an Abercrombie. It’s so weird being in a place like that, after so many years of weed being so socially taboo and awkward. To have this guy talk to me as if I was shopping for wedding rings in a jewelry store is something I just can’t get used to. But these are the types of shops popping up everywhere, setting this new standard for what shops in the future will look like.
Now I know I sound bitter and ungrateful about all of the changes the legalization movement has made in this country, and that is furthest from the case. I can’t be happier to see these monumental reforms taking place. I honestly believe these changes are a step forward to making the world a better place and alleviating some of the social ills that the war on drugs has brought on this country. It has always pained me to see and hear about people in prison for non-violent drug offenses, and it makes me incredibly optimistic that the conversation about changing the game is so prominent.
But think about this – if stoner culture doesn’t find a way to preserve itself, then the painful history that helped make it what it is maybe soon forgotten. Pretty soon kids will grow up in a world where it’s legal, but don’t have an understanding or appreciation for its historical roots. If the old school culture gets pushed out by a cannabis industry that cares more to profit than to bolster the culture, then, to put it simply, weed won’t be “cool” anymore. And when I say “cool” I mean that actual fine art of being cool, not the idea that something is just popular to many people.
As a black man that grew up in this country and has been arrested at least 3 times for something weed-related, this disheartens me a bit. I love that it’s a bit of a novelty to get Seth Rogan and Snoop Dogg in a room together to smoke and recap Game of Thrones, but in the near future, that novelty probably won’t exist. And will my son, who is 1-year old now but will one day be a man and might try marijuana, take me seriously when I try to discuss how his race plays a role in him smoking weed and how society perceives him? Just because it’s legal now and black folks aren’t being thrown in jail as much doesn’t mean the painful history behind cannabis is now healed; the repercussions still exist and have ramifications that will impact our society even long after we legalize it federally.
I want to see more people that look like me behind the counters and owning these businesses. And while I’m not at all judging those that make shops with a more clean, hipster atmosphere, I’d love more owners that come from and take pride in being a part of the culture. After years of a drug war that has destroyed communities and families of color, the system should be designed from the ground up to benefit those people, by offering programs and incentives for those people of color interested in the industry despite their initial means. Shops also need to be in, and serving low-income, minority neighborhoods too, not just soccer moms and privileged boomers in upscale hoods.
I fear my concerns at some point will fall on deaf ears. People in the future, when I get old, will see me as the old hippy that still has long hair or the 30-year old that still dresses like an emo teenager – someone to mock instead of being taken seriously in any way. I’ll be cranky and shriveled up, sitting in a rocking chair, listening to MF Doom, smoking some diesel I kept in a shoebox for years, bitching, saying things like “I remember when smoking weed and those that did it was ACTUALLY cool…..”